MTPR

'The Banker And The Blackfoot' With Edward Chamberlin

Aug 1, 2019

Full of wisdom, passion, and insight, The Banker and the Blackfoot compellingly portrays a time when people in that part of the Old West looked for ways of getting along and getting on with the things that mattered to them all. Their remarkable story offers hope for all of us today.

The Banker and the Blackfoot: An Untold Story of Friendship, Trust, and Broken Promises in the Old West

The following highlights are from a conversation with Edward Chamberlin about his historical nonfiction book, The Banker and the Blackfoot: An Untold Story of Friendship, Trust, and Broken Promises in the Old West. To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Sarah Aronson: How are you most like your grandfather Jack Cowdry?

Edward Chamberlin: That’s a good question. Probably, I’d go first with the best things: I believe in keeping my word, which he certainly did. I believe in other people, which he had to as a banker in the little town where be opened his bank on the Southern Alberta border. I’m happy to take risks and have a sense of adventure.

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One of the commonalities between US and Canada is that on the cover of this book is Chief Mountain. Which holds great significance to the Blackfeet south of the border and to the folks familiar with Glacier National Park. What can you say about Chief Mountain from the perspective of your book?

I love that it’s on the cover and figures at several points in the book because its sacred. It’s a sacred place. North of the border, the Blackfeet called themselves  Blackfoot. But  to the Blackfoot of Southern Alberta Chief Mountain was a very special place will all kinds of legends associated with it. And the lovely thing about it, for me, is that its in Montana. It reinforces the sense that the border didn’t really matter a damn to the Blackfoot. They acknowledged it as it became an important place of transition but they had many, many relatives down among the Blackfeet. They had been traveling there for generations to follow the buffalo. The center of their spiritual life was a mountain in Montana. For me, it catches both the importance of certain places, such as Chief Mountain and the whole of the Rockies—“the backbone of the world”—the Blackfoot in the Canada called the Rockies as they rolled up to the west and north. It catches the uncertain character and very permeable character of that border.  . .

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One of the passages you wrote: 

“To be fully human, we need to both surrender to a story and separate ourselves from it; live in both grief-stricken reality and the grace of the imagination; believe the stories we are told, and not believe them too.”

How did this impact your writing of the book?

My regular trade for years was literature, what brought me to this book was stories (literature’s a fancy name for stories and songs). There are all these very complicated responses to story. We all know how easily a song can bring us to tears. We know stories that make us both laugh and cry at the same time. In a sense there’s a mystery there about storytelling and about song. It’s one of the elements at the heart of being human—that surrender to story. In some ways it’s that dreaming, that element of believing but much deeper, much more universal and among the most powerful of the experiences of being human. . . Hearing my grandfather’s stories, I kind of got overwhelmed by the power of the story. For me, it became clear that one of the things that saved the Blackfoot were stories, in a variety of forms. Not all of them spoken or written down: carvings, paintings, weavings, and so forth. In some ways the book for me is about the power of friendship, and community, and stories.

About the Book:

During the last decades of the nineteenth century in the Old West, cowboys and Indians, lawmen and outlaws, ranchers and farmers shared the border between Canada and the United States—and mostly ignored it. American traders and cowhands with their cattle came north to the territory that later became Alberta, and the Blackfoot traveled south to Montana to visit with their kinfolk there among the Blackfeet. Bull trains carried supplies from Fort Benton, on the Missouri River, across the border to Fort Macleod, a small western town in the foothills of the Rockies.

The Banker and the Blackfoot conjures up vividly the never-before-told story of Fort Macleod, the surrounding Blackfoot territory, and the foothills during roughly two decades, 1885 to 1905, when many people living there tried to fashion a com­monwealth that would accommodate both Blackfoot sovereignty and new settlement—until the government in Ottawa broke many of its treaty promises to the Indians. It was in Fort Macleod that the self-made banker Jack Cowdry—J. Edward Chamberlin’s grandfather—met Crop Eared Wolf, the legendary Blackfoot warrior and horseman, and their friendship and trust formed a lasting bond. Jack Cowdry later became the town’s first mayor, and Crop Eared Wolf succeeded his father, the great statesman Red Crow, as head chief of the Blood tribe in the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Full of wisdom, passion, and insight, The Banker and the Blackfoot compellingly portrays a time when people in that part of the Old West looked for ways of getting along and getting on with the things that mattered to them all. Their remarkable story offers hope for all of us today.

Edward Chamberlin
Credit Meg Chamberlin

About the Author: 

Edward Chamberlin is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and an Officer of the Order of Canada. He was Senior Research Associate with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, and has worked extensively on indigenous land claims in Canada, the United States, South Africa, and Australia. His books include If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground; Island: How Islands Transform the World; and Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations. He lives near Vancouver.